I have been meaning to write a post on my views on religion for a while but have been putting it off because posts such these require thought and effort much beyond the random typing of a few words into Blogger and time has been something of a scarce commodity in these parts… It took The Mad Momma's gentle reminder that this would be a good time of the year write about this, DesiGirl's post on identity crisis and some free time in transit to and from Chennai that finally prodded me out of my inertia. So here goes…
Being of mixed parentage (Rajasthani dad, Tamilian mom with some Bengali roots thrown in for good measure) has never particularly bothered me and was in fact something that I felt quite proud of and felt it was part of my identity rather than a source for an identity crisis. But I wonder if Ayaan will feel the same way since I have gone and confused the whole thing even further by marrying a Goan Catholic. So he is going to have to attune himself to not just regional diversity but mixed messages from two very different religions as well. And if that were not enough, there is the further issue of both me and Jai not being very sure about the existence and extent of our belief in god and religion. So overall, it makes for a great hotpotch of a legacy.
If you know me in real life or have been reading this blog for a while, it would be pretty clear to you that I have a fairly rational bent of mind. And rationality does not mix well with unquestioning belief in anything and the same applies to my approach to religion. As a child and a teenager, I never really thought too much about it and just did as I was asked – mostly limited to stuff like participating in the annual Diwali pooja, folding my hands in prayer before an exam and abstaining from non-vegetarian food on certain days. I did this in the same unquestioning way that one responds to one’s parents' requests as a child – it wasn’t very different from gulping down two glasses of milk every day or doing my homework. It also involved no real thought or effort on my part.
Things changed when I moved away from home. When I set up my first home, my mom came and set up a little pooja shelf in the kitchen. And for the first Diwali after marriage, I attempted to recreate the Diwali ritual accompanied by detailed written instructions from my mom. But having to actually do everything on my own made me seriously question why I was doing it at all and pushed me to clarify my ambivalent attitude towards my faith or lack of it.
It’s a journey that I have yet to complete but one thing I do know for sure. I do not believe in god and prayer as they have been traditionally defined. I don’t believe that he (or she) has a face and a name or has ever actually lived a human life as an incarnation – therefore, a disbelief in idol worship. I know it makes our parents happy so we go to my mother’s place for Diwali every year and enthusiastically participate in the pooja as do we land up at the in-laws’ place for Christmas and attend midnight mass. But in my own home, I want to live my life as per what I believe in because it is too exhausting to do it any other way. So the aforementioned pooja shelf has been packed away (much to my mother’s consternation) because it felt hypocritical to have it up, dusty and neglected.
That being said, I am not a disbeliever of all things spiritual. This world we live in is far too miraculous and spectacular a place for it all to have been a simple coincidence. So while I don’t quite believe in god as a person, I do believe in the concept of a powerful force that exists both within us and in the world around us. I don’t yet have the clarity to understand and define what that force is – hopefully one day I will.
The other thing I still don’t have an answer to is whether prayer has any role in my life and if so, in what form. Traditional prayer largely revolves around praying to a well-defined entity and since I cannot define what the thing is, how can I pray to it. Secondly, prayer is about having a conversation with said entity and usually revolves around a request or a wish (from material stuff like more money to stuff like good heath and safety of the family) and my rational mind cannot accept that there is something out there that receives and considers every prayer that is sent out by all of humanity.
So anyway the bottom line to all this pointless meandering is that I am confused. And Jai is atleast one step behind where I am because he only knows that he doesn’t believe but hasn’t yet started thinking about what that really means. Now, if there was just the two of us to worry about, we would have merrily stumbled along without a care in the world. But like everything else, this too gets complicated when there is a child involved. And I worry about the mixed messages that Ayaan will get as he grows up.
When I was pregnant, my mom got the valaikaapu ceremony done; at the same time my mother-in-law gave me a statue of Mother Mary to keep nearby till my delivery. Ayaan has been baptised; he has also had a proper mundan ceremony. Every year, he will see Diwali being celebrated at my mom’s place and along with the fun side of getting new clothes and setting off firecrackers, he will sit down at a pooja and pray to gods like Ram and Lakshmi. Similarly at Christmas, there will be Santa Claus, Christmas trees and gifts but there will also be midnight mass where he will get to hear a sermon about Jesus Christ and Mother Mary. Plus, my mother-in-law is a staunch believer in Vipasana and is sure to talk to him about it as he gets older. And at the end of it all, he will come back to a home where none of this is practised.
I am struggling with how we can help him deal with this as he grows up. There are things that I am sure of:
- I don’t want to pay lip service to organised religion just to make life simpler to Ayaan. Because I don’t want my conversations on something as big as this to be based on a lie. I also don’t want to spend the next 20 years till he grows up living a lie by pretending to believe in something that I don’t.
- I don’t want to shut religion completely out of his life. Mostly because it would be impossible to do that – even if I could make the grandparents stop, he will soon grow up and be exposed to stuff at school, from his peers and from the media.
- Festivals are an important part of growing up in India (or anywhere, I guess). And so I don’t want to cut them out of Ayaan’s life. While they do have their roots in religion, they are also about fun, festivity, tradition and family in a way that not many other things are and I do think they are an essential childhood experience, not to mention a rich source of happy childhood memories.
- I don’t want him to be labelled as a Hindu or a Christian. He has a mixed parentage and that is something that I want him to aware and proud of as early as possible.
- I don’t want to push my beliefs (if they can be called that at this nascent stage) down his throat. Because that would be the most counter-productive way of dealing with the issue and would probably only serve to push him away from whatever I was trying to indoctrinate into him.
And then there are things that I am not so sure of:
- How important is religion in teaching children right from wrong? Stories and fables from the Bhagvad Gita and the Bible have been used over time to teach children lessons about the right ways to live and the consequences of not doing so. Also, the fear of god is used as a deterrent to bad behaviour and immorality. If you inherently believe that there is someone up there who maintains a system of checks and balances, would you not be less likely to be dishonest, corrupt or evil?
- What will I tell him when he asks me who or what god is?
- How will I celebrate the festivals I mentioned above on the occasions when it isn’t possible for us to visit the grandparents, or after they have passed on?
- How will I explain the inherent contradictions between all the belief systems that he will be exposed to in a manner that will appeal to him intellectually and emotionally?
- How will I inculcate in him the tolerance for other beliefs that are not his own?
- Most importantly, how will I help Ayaan stitch together these diverse jigsaw pieces of his parents’ histories and beliefs to evolve his own system of faith?
In the end, there are lots of questions and not many answers. And I am not sure that I ever will have all the answers. Needless to say, this sometimes keeps me awake at night.